SpaceX, Dragon splash down

Return of the Dragon

The first splash down in 45 years! Looking at the news coverage I wondered if the crew of Apollo 18, their cancelled mission somehow re-instated, had finally come down from orbit after more than four decades circling the Earth, its crew emerging from their confinement like members of the Japanese Army shuffling out of the jungle long after the war had ended, older and bearded and blinking in the sunlight. Perhaps, in an ironic inversion, wearing face masks to protect themselves not from moon-bugs but from a virus that had its origins much closer to home.

And just for a moment it really did seem as if the glory days were back, the capsule a herald of holidays in space which were just around the corner, the highlight of an all-inclusive theme park package. A Disney ticket at long last offering a way of entering the moonscapes envisaged by artists such as Chesley Bonestell and David Hardy. Fun for all the family in the lunar highlands.

The last stage of the mission perhaps the most dangerous of all, the spacecraft so like a torch which only the ocean can quench. The cluster of parachutes that slow the perilous descent through the bright Pacific air capturing the uplift in national pride, which surely won’t falter this time, not when so much lies just within reach.

I waited for the orange and white Sea King helicopter (that reassuring emblem of a safe return to Earth) to appear and lift the heat-seared module from the ocean. But in keeping with these more modern times it was winched directly to safety by a waiting recovery vessel.

When they were lifted out of their capsule, like strange human-sized insects prized from a metal chrysalis, the astronauts weren’t wearing the familiar white jumpsuits of the Apollo era. They were a welcome sight nonetheless, clearly recognizable as space travellers newly returned from a recent expedition, their interstellar spacesuits an obvious indication of where their true ambitions lay. They hadn’t quite made good on Gene Cernan’s promise of a return to the Moon (not this time at least) but undeniably that goal was now just a little bit closer.

And beyond that dusty blue-grey beacon, further out in space, the prize of a long-awaited landing on the surface of the Red Planet, with its dormant lava lakes and subterranean caves (at least in the imagination of Edgar Rice Burroughs), which is surely where a Dragon spaceship really belongs.

The Dragon has landed: SpaceX arrives on Mars in the perhaps not too distant future.

By Mark Stewart

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